Busy

Suspects 24-05

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“I have more questions than there are words in the English language, Chambers.” Avalon had pressed both hands together in a praying position, both index fingers lightly touching her bottom lip. “But I think three of those words work to sum it up adequately. What. The. Fuck.”

Tristan pointed. “Uh, yeah, I’m with her. What do you mean, you’re gonna talk to the Hangman skull? First, isn’t the thing being guarded by, like, full Heretics ever since that little brat went through it? Second, aren’t they supposed to be evil? Third, and again because I cannot stress this enough, already being guarded. Not that we’re not super-awesome, but seriously?”

“Okay.” Holding up both hands, I shook my head. “There isn’t really time to explain it. Not yet. We’re kind of in a rush right now, if we’re gonna get there before the wolves take off. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a bit to actually talk the skull into doing us a solid. So I just need you guys to trust me for a minute, alright?” When they nodded, I reached into my pocket and took out five polished, rounded stones, each about an inches across with several identical engraved symbols on them. Tugging them out, I passed the stones around. There was one for each of us.  

“An audio transmission spell?” Vanessa asked while examining the rock closely. “And a transportation spell. But I can’t tell what the other ones are. Something about silence?”

“Oh, audio transmission,” I replied. “Great, he must’ve added it so we can hear what’s going on. We didn’t have a chance to talk for long, so I wasn’t sure if he’d get to it.”

Before they could ask what I meant by ‘he’, there was a shout. It seemed to come directly from the rocks that we were holding, echoing through the room as it came from five different sources.

“Traitor!” Wyatt’s voice shouted from the rocks once more, making the others jump. With a smile, I waved them to take a look through the window that I had already opened. In the distance, we could make out the sight of two figures in front of the lighthouse. One was a third-year student that I had seen around the school before. His arm was being held by the other figure, Wyatt himself. There was a tray on the ground with food spilled out around it, littered over the grass. The poor guy had almost a foot and a good fifty pounds (at least) on my brother, yet Wyatt was easily holding him in place despite his obvious struggles to the contrary.

Yeah, I’d gone to Wyatt with the problem of how to get up to the Heretical Edge. Like I’d told the others, we hadn’t been able to talk for long. But he’d promised that he had a way of causing a distraction, and before school had ended, he’d slipped the rocks to me for the next step.

“Traitor!” Wyatt shouted again, drowning out the boy’s protests that were also being transmitted. “Who got to you? Who paid you to assassinate our people, hmm? Which of our enemies filled your pockets with gold and fouled your soul with the stench of hired murder?! Who was it, boy?”

There was the sound of another, more distant voice that the rocks didn’t quite pick up. Then the door of the lighthouse opened and a figure stepped out into view. The guard who was helping to make sure that nothing like Ammon popping through happened again. As he came through the door, the man got close enough for the stones to pick up his words. “–is going on out here?”

“This… conspirator,” Wyatt started, still holding the student by the arm, “was attempting to deliver poisoned food to you. No doubt his intention was to wait for it to take effect and then allow his master’s army to slip through while you were choking on your own vomit. Within minutes, they would have overrun the school and killed each and every one of us!”

“Dude!” the older student blurted, “I was delivering the food cuz that chef guy asked me to, chill!”

While Wyatt went on another rather impressive rant, I looked back to the others. “Okay, it’s clear. Wyatt checked it out earlier, there’s just the one guy and multiplying isn’t one of his powers. Rub your thumbs over that rune there and repeat after me. Oh, and the other spells on the rocks are gonna stop all the security alarms that they’ve got up there from going off. So whatever you do, don’t let go of them.” Taking a breath then, I moved my thumb over the stone a few times while speaking clearly so that the others could understand and copy me. “Kusafiri.”

As soon as I said the word, the room around me vanished. I felt a slight twisting sensation in my stomach and stumbled a little bit. When it stopped, I was standing in the top of the lighthouse.

The others appeared a moment later, and I looked around quickly. The light fixture was where it had always been, right in the middle of the platform. I had just taken a step that way when the others appeared all around me as they finished repeating the spell-trigger that Wyatt had set up.

“Okay,” I whispered, “the rocks should also make sure the guy downstairs doesn’t hear us, but let’s not push our luck too much.” As the others nodded, I moved over to the light fixture, the Heretical Edge itself, or at least the part of it that we could actually see.

Once there, I wasn’t sure how to start. I’d wanted to talk to the Hangman ever since I’d figured out that it was the reason that Mom had been able to get into the school grounds undetected, except it was always guarded. But right now, desperate times called for desperate measures. The clock was counting down to us losing our best chance to get that choker from Pace.

“Um.” I started and then stopped, squeezing the stone in my hand. Come on, Flick. Get over it, I thought to myself. Wyatt can only distract that guy for so long. Do this. Talk to the skull.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to talk to the imprisoned Hangman about. I didn’t know if it would care at all about our mission or why we needed to get out there, or about me.

So in the end, I just… talked.

“Hey… I-I’m sorry.” Lifting my hand, I rested it against the edge of the giant bulb that clearly encased the skull. “I… I don’t know how much of what we learned about you was true and how much was lies. Probably most of it was lies. And even if it wasn’t, you don’t deserve to be treated like… this.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “Trapped… broken… used for centuries. What happened to you, what they did, what they’re still doing, it’s wrong. And I wish I could do something about it. I wish I was here to tell you that we had a way to help, that we could… could do… anything. I wish I wasn’t here to ask for a favor. Because now, that just seems… selfish.

“But somehow… somehow I think it’s a little bit okay. I don’t know… almost anything about you, at all. Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what really happened or what you’re really like. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that you helped my mom. My mom wanted to help Alters, people that the Heretics were killing. She wanted to save them, and you helped her. You helped her get where she needed to be, you shielded her, and you made her powerful. That’s the only thing I know about you for sure, that you helped my mother when you didn’t have to. You helped her so that she could protect others. And that’s not a monster.

“I can’t help you right now. I can’t… do anything to make it better. All I can do is promise that I won’t forget you. I see you. I remember you. You matter. I don’t know what that’s worth, but you do. You matter. And you’re the only one who can help us right now. The Seosten, the ones who really did this to you, they’re in the school. They’re hurting my friends. And the only way we can identify them, the only way we can stop them, is by getting to this location.” I held my phone up to the glass with the GPS coordinates that Roxa had sent me. “If we don’t get there in the next few minutes, we’re gonna miss our chance. We can’t leave the grounds or go to Gaia for help without the Committee’s lackeys noticing. You’re the only chance we have. Believe me, if you don’t want to do anything, I won’t blame you. But I have to ask. Please, please, help us. I’m not-”

My last word was abruptly cut off as the glass of the giant light fixture vanished, making me stumble forward a couple steps before I caught my balance.

Wait, no, it wasn’t just that the light fixture had disappeared. It was that the entire lighthouse was gone. Or rather, I was. The floor beneath my feet had turned into grass and dirt, the air smelled completely different, the weather was significantly cooler, and I could hear cows in the distance.

The others were already recovering. They had appeared right alongside me, transported at the same time. Transported. It had worked. It actually worked. The Hangman had listened to me.

I was still standing there, a little stunned as Shiori lunged over. Her arms wrapped around me, hugging tight enough to make me yelp in surprise. “Flick!” she blurted, “You did it!”

“Not me,” I corrected after catching myself sniffing her hair. “The Hangman did it. Which is just-”

“Hey!” a voice abruptly hissed, making us whirl that way to find a black woman standing there. She looked like she was a few years older than we were, and her short hair was dyed purple. A red-haired guy stood on one side of her while Roxa stood on the other with her mechanical cougar at her hip. The woman was speaking. “I dunno what they teach you about weres up at that school, but they have good hearing. So let’s try not to attract all of them over here by screaming our heads off, mmkay?”

Werewolves, clearly. I didn’t even need my Heretic-sense to tell me that. With Roxa there, it was obvious. They were part of Sean’s uncle’s pack. The Hangman had dropped us right by them.  

“It’s alright, Lesedi,” Mateo himself announced as he came into view, though he kept his voice down. “We’re far enough away that even were-hearing shouldn’t pick us up. And our Wonderland friends have set some stealth enchantments. Though being careful is a good idea.”

He turned his attention to us then. And again, I was surprised by how unimposing the Hispanic man appeared. He looked like he belonged behind a computer, meticulously examining spreadsheets and tax forms, not leading a pack of werewolves. It was still a bit disconcerting.

“You made it,” he announced, extending a hand. “Good to see a bit more help, as much as I hate the idea of letting kids get into this kind of fight.” Pausing, he added, “Though I suppose with the kind of stuff that’s coming for you guys, shielding you from it’s probably a pipe dream.”  

“I think that’s why Gaia isn’t stopping us from getting involved,” I murmured while accepting the man’s hand. “She plays umbrella for the worst of it, but some of it, she’s just gotta let us get hit.”

“So you learn to take it and hit back,” Mateo confirmed, releasing my hand after a moment to shake the others. “Most of you guys I know, but you…” He trailed off, squinting at Shiori and Vanessa for a second until they introduced themselves. “Great, we’re uh, we’re set up over here.” Gesturing over his shoulder, the man paused before adding, “You should get a look at what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. Make sure you still want to be involved with it.”

I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but, with a shrug back at the others, I started to follow after the man as he led us across what looked like a rocky, sagebrush-filled desert in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. We were actually in southern Utah at the moment, so there was a lot of red rocks, short canyons, and big rock formations. But yeah, pretty far removed from anything resembling civilization. Which made sense, considering I was pretty sure the werewolves wouldn’t be holding their big pow-wow in the convention hall of a Ritz-Carlton. They’d want to be somewhere private, somewhere they could cut loose without being careful.

Stopping by Roxa, I paused before looking to the blonde girl. “I guess we’re doing this, huh?”

Before she could respond, the woman beside her, Lesedi, made a scoffing noise. “Yeah, might as well all throw ourselves at this army just so sunshine can go back to a nice, normal life.”

Lesedi headed off in another direction then, leaving Roxa to sigh. Biting her lip, she watched the woman before her eyes moved back to me, voice low. “She’s upset because she thinks I don’t want to be a part of the pack. She thinks I’m desperate to leave and go back to the Heretics instead of staying with Mateo and the rest. I’m pretty sure they all think that, at least a bit.”

As she said that, Gidget, the cyberform cougar, nudged up against the girl and gave a little whine.

“Do you?” That was Vanessa piping up from behind me. “Do you want to go back, I mean.”

That drew a prolonged hesitation from Roxa before the girl settled on, “I don’t know what I want. It used to be really obvious, you know? Get the choker, go back to being a Heretic as soon as it was safe. I was just gonna go right back to the school, with you guys. But now, after a couple months with the pack…” She hesitated before sighing. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be.”  

“You don’t have to make a decision right this second,” I pointed out. “Let’s just get the option. We need to get the choker away from Pace anyway. And besides, I’m pretty sure that whatever Lemuel’s up to gathering all these werewolves together in one group like this, it’s nothing good.”

Pausing at that, Roxa looked back to us. “It’s not just wolves.” She started to say something else before gesturing for us to follow. “Come on, it’s probably better if you just see it for yourselves.”

So, the five of us followed as she led us the same way that Mateo had been going. We went up a semi-steep hill, following a narrow path until we came out on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide desert valley. There were a handful of trucks and other vehicles parked there, with a couple dozen people that kept pinging my Heretic-sense as Alters scattered around. Some of them were obviously the Wonderland assistance that had shown up. I could even see Seth and one of the other Septs (the centaur Fennicus) in the distance, having an intense-looking conversation with one of the werewolves. The non-Wonderland Alters meanwhile…

“Hi! Hello, hola, greetings, salutations,” the nine-tailed Kistune known as Busy came trotting up, grinning at us. “Good to see you again, the ones I’ve seen before, yes. Very good, except for the bad things out there. Nasty things, not so good. So many bad people. But you, you aren’t. You’re good, quite good. Coming to help, yes. So hello and greetings again, like I said before.”

Snickering a little despite myself, I gestured. “Guys, this is Busy. Busy, I guess you already saw Avalon and Shiori back at the camp. But this is Vanessa and Tristan. They’re here to help. And I guess you are too, which means that Gabriel got the message I sent?” I’d used the phone to send a text message about what was going on, hoping that the Atherby clan would be able to spare some help. And from the look of things, they had done just that. Though aside from a couple, I couldn’t tell which people were from Wonderland and which ones were from the clan.

The dark-skinned Kitsune bobbed his head up and down quickly. “Yes, yes, indubitably and affirmative. He’d never abandon you to such creatures, never leave you alone if given the chance. Sadly, unfortunately, and lamentably, other events prioritize his presence and assistance. Gabriel himself cannot be here in person. But he sent us to help, sent us to intercede, sent us to lend aid. I hope and wish that our aid and assistance will be sufficient.”

“Dude,” Tristan piped up then while giving a thumbs up. “I knew a Kitsune back with Nicholas, and if you’re anywhere near as useful as she was to have around, those wolves are in trouble.”

“Oh yes, indeed and of course. Wolves and others, all in trouble,” the other man agreed.

Before I could say anything to that, Mateo beckoned for us to join him at the edge of the ridge. I could see some others up there, including Duncan and Misty from the clan, as well as both Buddy the troll from Wonderland and his boss in the security division, the blue-feathered, bird-like Lavinso named Quing. All of them were staring off of the ridge, most using binoculars.

We made our way up there, passing more Alters who took deliberately wide berths around us, most of them staring and whispering behind our backs. Clearly, Crossroads Heretics weren’t the most popular allies among the Wonderland Alters. Not that I could blame them, after what I’d seen.

“Privet, druz’ya moy!” Buddy greeted us while thumping a massive hand against his even more massive chest. He was giving a wide, toothy smile. “Hello, my friends! Ve are here to be smacking und smashing dze bad guys, yes?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Hey, Buddy. Yup, they are gonna be one smashed clump of bad guys when we’re through.”

Beside the troll, Quing made a noncommittal noise. The bird-man pointedly wasn’t looking at us, though his body language was definitely tense.

“Hey,” Tristan started to blurt. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the bird-guy from Star Fo–”

“Don’t,” I quickly stopped the boy, shaking my head. It probably wasn’t a good subject to bring up.

To my surprise, however, Quing glanced over. His eyes were as hard as ever, but he replied, “You think I look like him, or does he look like me? Where do you think they got the idea for the character, kid?”

Leaving Tristan to work out if the guy was kidding or not, I looked back to the rest of the people gathered up here on the ridge. Roxa was there too. As I turned that way, she handed over another pair of binoculars and pointed off in the distance. “Look way out there, at the base of the mountain.”

Before I could even lift them, Vanessa was gasping from beside me. The half-Seosten girl was standing there, staring off without any visible aid. When I blinked at her, she flushed a little bit and muttered under her breath, “Telescopic vision, from an Ispec. It’s a long story.”

“But an awesome one,” Tristan put in. “They’re these wicked little–they kinda look like Sovereign. You know, Aylen’s metal bird? Only about three and a half feet tall and the metal stuff that’s over them is actually this hardened liquid that they pump out of their–never mind. Long story. You should’ve seen Nessa out there though.”

Lifting my chin, I asked, “Does that mean you don’t need the binoculars either?”

“Me?” Tristan’s head shook. “Nah, I didn’t get the same power she did. Me, I can do…” Lifting a hand, his eyes narrowed with focus. I saw what started out looking like a single dot of metallic liquid, almost like a raindrop or a bit of sweat appear on the back of his hand. Over a second or two, it spread out into a feather-shaped bit of metal sticking up a little bit. Tristan waited until we’d all seen it, then exhaled. As he did so, the feather shot out of his hand like a dart, cutting halfway into a nearby heavy boulder before it stopped.

Shiori whistled low at that. “Wow, dude. That’s pretty cool.”

“No kidding,” I agreed. “But let’s see what really not-cool thing we’re looking at out there.” Lifting the binoculars to my eyes at that, I looked the way they had directed.

It took a few seconds to focus in on the base of the distant mountain, but once it did, I choked a little bit.

They were right. There were weres out there. A lot of them. And not just werewolves. I could see them in animal and half-animal forms of all different kinds. Wolves, but also bears, snakes, coyotes, crows, and even a few more exotic animals like tigers, a couple apes, and a crocodile. They were all scattered across the desert field, around trucks and tents, as well as plenty of tables laden down with food.

“You’re right,” I murmured, “this isn’t just a werewolf convention. He’s got all kinds of weres out there. Dozens of them.”

Mateo’s voice was low. “Yup. He’s recruiting an army. Not sure what the point is yet, but… let’s just say it can’t be for anything good.” His words were punctuated by a low growl from Gidget.

“Right.” I nodded slowly while lowering the binoculars to stare off that way unaided. They were barely a speck in the distance. “Which means that this isn’t just about getting that choker. It’s about stopping Lemuel. Whatever that takes.”

Quing spoke up from nearby. “Then we better hurry up, because those trucks that just pulled in are about to pick up his pack. If we don’t get down there right now, they’ll be gone.”

“Stopping Lemuel before he leaves, grabbing the choker,” Shiori intoned with a straight face that twitched just a little as she fought to hold it, “either way, you might say we have to… pick up the pace.”

I didn’t bother fighting the slight snicker that came at that. It was good to smile, at least for a second. Because whatever happened over the next few minutes was bound to be nasty. But it had to be done. Whatever Lemuel was up to, he couldn’t be allowed to send this army of were-creatures out into the world.

At least he wasn’t the only one with an army. On our side, we had Mateo’s pack, a few more werewolves they had pulled into the fight with them, the Wonderland people, the ones from the Atherby clan, and the five of us from Crossroads. It wasn’t nearly as big as the force that Lemuel had pulled together, but it was going to have to do the job. Because right now, right here, there wasn’t anyone else.

This wasn’t going to be a fight like I’d seen before, a skirmish between a few people.

It was going to be a war.  

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Sharkhunt 23-03

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“So I’ve got a question,” I started a little bit later as Gabriel and I walked along the edge of the lake toward one of the other cabins. Avalon and Shiori were both catching a nap back in his place, since neither would agree to leaving here without me. It was all I could do to convince them to sleep, even though they’d both been so exhausted they could barely keep their eyes open.

“Well, actually I have a lot of questions,” I amended. “But one in particular, about the heir thing.”

The man glanced at me before giving a slight smile. “You mean why are you considered the heir?”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh. I mean, Mom’s still alive. And Wyatt and Abigail are both older than I am. So why would you call me the ‘Atherby clan heir’?” Pausing, I added, “And when do they get to come out here? I’m sure they both wanna hear stories about the family.”

“I’d like to get them both out here,” Gabriel confirmed. “And we will, as soon as possible. Especially if they can come together. To see the twins again after so much time…” He paused, swallowing noticeably. “It would make some of the people around here very happy.” The way he said it made it clear that there were plenty who’d never gotten over losing them in the first place.

After letting that hang for a few seconds, the man continued. “And as far as the heir stuff goes, that’s all four of you, counting Koren. As direct Atherby descendants, you’re either the leader, or the heir. When the leadership position opens up for whatever reason, anyone with the title of heir can throw their hat in the ring to be chosen as the next leader. Then every adult member of the clan votes for it. If there’s more than one, I mean. Or if there’s no eligible heirs at all, someone else is voted on.” He coughed, eyes rolling a little bit. “That’s what happened with me.” Pausing, the man looked away while lowering his voice. “Apparently the whole ‘voting on multiple heirs’ thing used to be more important when there were more Atherbys. Lyell outlived most of his family and only had one son.”

“Joshua,” I finished for him, nodding before looking up as we reached the cabin. There were a eleven people around a bonfire that had been built up in the back. All of them seemed to be watching us, and my Heretic-sense went off like mad for a few seconds as I took in the sight.

“There’s an awful lot of people who know about my mom,” I pointed out. “Does that mean they were all protected from the spell that Ruthers and his people cast? But that doesn’t make sense, because I know that Asenath and Twister weren’t, and they were both helping the rebellion.”

“A few were protected,” the man explained. “Others were brought on since then and… restored.” He made a face that was barely visible in the light from the nearby lantern. “It took years to get this many back, and it’s nowhere near the numbers that the rebellion had under your mother.”

“Right, and speaking of getting people back,” I added, “is this the place where Scott ended up?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. He’s at another place, a house in one of the cities. As soon as he starts remembering enough of what happened, I will let you know. Assuming you’d like to visit.”

I nodded, but before I could say anything, one of the figures moved from the fire to come closer. As he approached, I saw what looked like a dark-skinned man with a pointed fox-like ears on top of his head, similar to Twister’s. Unlike Twister, however, he didn’t have a tail. He had nine of them. All were long, dark, and fluffy, spread out behind him like some kind of dark, furry peacock.

“Oh,” I blurted as the man came into view. “You’re a Kitsu–” Cutting myself off, I flushed a little bit. “Sorry, that’s probably pretty rude, huh? Um, hi.” I extended a hand. “What I mean is, hi, I’m Flick.”

The man, who was shorter and far more wiry than Gabriel, gave me a quick smile that showed a mouthful of perfectly white, canine teeth. “No, nah, not a problem, not a thing at all,” he blurted in a voice that was clearly accustomed to speaking a million miles a minute. “My name’s Biseon, but they call me Busy. Not sure why. Hah, I’m kidding, I know why. It’s cuz I’m always busy. Always working, always going, gotta keep going if we’re gonna survive a world like this, you know. Lotsa things wanna kill us. Heretics, Nocen, actually some people think we oughtta just call you all Nocen too since you’re always trying to kill us. Well, not you personally, but the other Heretics, other ones that are bad, scary, terrible. Glad you’re not like them. That would’ve been really–”

“Busy,” Gabriel interjected, “is our technology expert. You think he talks fast now, you should see him when he’s actually trying to explain something about those computers he likes so much.”

While the Hangman-Heretic was talking, Busy’s nine tails spread out before starting to wag up and down with obvious excitement. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he quickly interjected. “See Heretic stuff, gotta take it apart, put it back together, see how it tick tick ticks, not like a bomb, well some of them are bombs. Usually catch those, not always, lost a few eyebrows. Lost a couple fingers, but made replacements. Heretics like to trap their stuff, make weapons burn Alters, not fair, not fun. Had to figure out how to undo it. Heretics here help, let me use weapons to figure out trick.”

Holding up a hand, I tried to latch onto at least one part of what he was saying before he could ramble on. “So Heretic weapons burn you guys if you try to touch them, but you worked out a way to get around it after the Heretics that are on your side let you examine their weapons?”

“Yes, yes, exactly, that’s it.” Busy’s head bobbed up and down even faster than his collection of tails. “Smart girl, very smart. Sharp, bright, shrewd,  what a whiz. Muldoon called it in the movie.”

Lost again, I worked my mouth for a second before starting to ask, “What mov–”

“Jurassic Park,” he interrupted. “Good movie. Terrible science, good movie. Fun. Eat popcorn, don’t complain. Totally inaccurate in every way. Wrong way to bring dinosaurs back. Wrong, but fun. Muldoon, clever girl. But don’t eat me. Don’t wanna be that movie-accurate, nope.”

Oh, right. Muldoon, the Jurassic Park guy that was eaten by the raptors. Now I was caught up.  “I promise not to eat you,” I assured him, adding, “And you made replacements for your fingers?”

In response, the fox-man lifted up both hands in front of me. The index and middle fingers of his left hand, and the pinkie, index, and thumb on his right all extended various tiny tools like screwdriver heads, drill-bits, scissors, and more. It made him look a bit like Inspector Gadget.

Gabriel ushered me over to the fire, where I saw more of the people up close. Of the eleven people there, my Heretic-sense picked out about half of them as being Alters. The others were either Heretics, or a kind of Alter that didn’t set off the sense. All of them were staring at me.

One of them cleared his throat. He was an Orc, one of the big, eight-foot tall guys with warthog face. This one had a long, scraggly gray beard, and was wearing ratty blue jeans and a black shirt that advertised some kind of automotive repair shop. “Yer da spittin’ image o’yer mudder.”

There was a chorus of agreement behind him, as the Orc’s face broke into a wide smile. He extended one of his large hands my way. “Name’s Oscar. Well, t’ain’t really muh name, but ya prob’ly couldna pronounce the righ’ one anyway.  Oscar’s close ‘nuff, an’ the kiddies been usin’ it ever-since tha’ Says-Me Street made tha’ one puppet in the trash can. Dunno why, Ah ain’t furry.”

“Oh, um, hi, Oscar.” I accepted his hand, and he grinned when I didn’t wince from the squeeze.

“Got a bit o’ a grip on ya there, yah?” he drawled, still giving me an easy smile before letting go.

I shrugged. “Um, yeah, there was this werewolf and…” Trailing off, I coughed. “Never mind.”

More of the people that had been by the fire introduced themselves then. Besides Oscar the Orc and Busy the Kitsune, there was a female Relukun (one of the wood-people) named Calice, a tiny male Kobold (a small, goblin-like creature) wearing a miniature suit, tie, and tophat that introduced himself as Fancy (he was even using a neat little cane), and a Prevenkuat (the two-headed hyena-people) who had one male head and one female head. I decided against asking how their plumbing was arranged.

That was it for the obvious Alters. Of the rest, three turned out to be Heretics, all of them naturals. There was Duncan, a natural Ullus-Heretic (it turned out the Ullus were the Alters that Columbus and Shiori had killed back on the Meregan planet to get their metal-manipulation powers. They looked like yellow-skinned humans with three eyes instead of two) who looked like he was about thirty-something, with brownish-blonde hair and a rugged build like a man who had lived outside for much of his life.

Beside Duncan was his younger sister, Misty. She was a natural Ogre Heretic who appeared to be in her late teens or very early twenties, with hair that was brown with little bits of blonde running through it here and there. She was also a waifish figure who looked like a stiff breeze would blow her apart. But thanks to the inherited Ogre-strength, she could easily shot put a pickup truck.

Then there was a man who looked like that ancient knight guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was even dressed like a knight in chainmail, and carried an old-looking sword in a scabbard at his hip. The guy actually kissed my hand while introducing himself as Enguerrand. Unlike the others, he didn’t volunteer what kind of Alter he had gained his Heretic-state from.

Beyond the trio of natural Heretics, there were three others who were apparently non-obvious Alters that my sense didn’t pick up. The two females seemed to be related to one another, and introduced themselves as Rain and Kaste. Both looked like they were in their mid-thirties. The guy, meanwhile, looked young. Barely out of his teens, if that. He called himself Berlin, and the only thing out-of-the-ordinary that I saw with him was that his eyes were a deep orange color.

He was also the one who started talking about my mother first, as we gathered around their fire. “Oscar’s right, you do look a lot like Joselyn. Not completely, but you are definitely her daughter.”

“Y–you actually knew my mom?” I asked, reminding myself again not to be fooled by how young he looked. Appearances meant nothing, as my 430-ish-year-old history teacher could attest.

“Course I did,” the red-haired, orange-eyed guy replied. “She’s the one that–” He paused before clearing his throat. “Ah, start from the beginning. I was working transport for these smugglers. I’m an Abeonas, see. We sorta specialize in what you call foldjumps, spots where we connect two different places and let anyone go straight from one to the other if they know the password.”

Right, I’d heard about them from the people in Wonderland, and from Mateo. That was how his pack had made the trip from Colombia all the way up there as quickly as they had.

Berlin continued. “So I was working for this smuggling group when your mom shows up and slaughters like… everyone. Everyone except me. Must’ve been ten guys. Tough ones too, couple of trolls in there for muscle. But Joselyn just went right through ‘em like they didn’t even matter. Killed them, then dragged me away from my own portal before I could get the hell out of there. Asked me if I knew what we were transporting in the truck. I told her it was weapons, magic stuff. She uh, she showed me it was more than that. Opened up the truck and there were these kids in there. Kids that were being taken out to be… sold.” He stopped, clearing his throat. “That was the tenth trip I made with those motherfuckers. Joselyn, she helped me set things as right as we could. We went back for the rest of the slavers, freed the ones that were there, killed all the bastards, then used their records to track down all the slaves that I helped deliver. Freed ‘em, killed their so-called owners, and that was that. Or it would’ve been. I probably would’ve found some other job working for one low life or another. Except Joselyn said I could do something more important. She talked up this rebellion of hers, told me I could make a difference. So, here I am.”

The old knight nodded. “Joshua would have been quite proud of his little girl.” He smiled faintly at me. “And his granddaughter. It’s too bad that he never got the chance to know any of you.”

Biting my lip, I asked him, “I take it that means you weren’t recruited by my mom then? It sounds like you were part of this whole clan thing already, if you knew my grandfather.”

He chuckled slightly. “I knew Joshua, yes. I changed his diapers.” Winking, the old man added, “His father, Lyell, was one of my best friends for a long time. He’s the one that saved me back when I first ran into the Alter that killed my family. I killed it, but the others would’ve killed me in turn if it wasn’t for Lyell Atherby. After that, we were friends until he passed. I watched over Joshua as a baby, I watched over little Joselyn, and I watched over the twins.” He paused then before flinching, looking away from me as his whole body sagged. “Never forgive myself for that.”

Wincing at his words, I hesitated for a second before reaching out to touch his arm. “Enguerrand,” I started, stumbling over his name just a little bit, “what happened wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t the fault of any of you guys. Gaia says that Ruthers didn’t even tell his own people what he was planning to do. Going after kids like that? It was…” I squeezed my hand tightly. “It was too far.”

The others had stories that were similar to Berlin’s. Most had been recruited by my mother at some point or another, and all had some kind of personal experience with her. All except Duncan and Misty, that was. Both were too young to have had anything to do with Mom, though their parents had been part of the rebellion, Heretics from Eden’s Garden who joined up with my mother back in the early days. Duncan and Misty had been born after Mom surrendered herself. They had grown up seeing the clan slowly rebuild itself after being taken down to the bare bones by the effect of the Mnemosyne spell. And they may not have had personal interaction with my mother, but they had plenty of passed-down stories from their (sadly now deceased) parents to share with me.

“So then Mom says,” Misty continued the story she had been telling while leaning on the handle of her weapon (a sword as big around as she was and just as tall) while the blade was partially buried in the ground, “that Dad can’t have, you know, gland-to-gland combat with the vampire girl unless he brings her some absurd quest item. I don’t remember, it was like the holy grail or something. Not that, but pretty much. Anyway, she was obviously just teasing him, you know. But she played it all straight, so Dad thought she was serious. So he goes off and looks for help to find this thing, and it’s your mom that agrees to help him. I’m pretty sure she knew Mom was teasing too, but she went with it. They went off and actually found the damn thing and brought it back.”

“Wait, so my mother seriously went on some epic quest just to help your dad get laid?” I worked my mouth a little at that before weakly asking, “Well, uh, I guess ummm… did it work?”

Duncan shook his head. “Our mother always stopped Dad from finishing the story at that point.”

“But,” Misty put in, “Dad used to give us that wink. So I’d say he probably got with vampire girl.”

I started to nod before my eyes widened. “Wait a second. Vampire girl? It wasn’t Asenath was it?”

“Hey, yeah,” the girl replied. “That was her name. Wait, that’s the one you’ve got watching your dad, right?” Her head tilted a little, obviously thinking briefly. “You think she’s still got a thing for–”

Thankfully, Duncan stopped her by clearing his throat pointedly. He gave me a sympathetic look. “I think the best takeaway here is that your mother was always there for the people she cared about. Sometimes it was something life-changing and really important. Other times it was for… that.”

Fancy, the snappily-dressed Kobold, gave a quick nod of his head. The top hat tried to slip off, but he raised his cane in a practice maneuver that caught the brim of it just in time. “Hear hear,” he announced in a voice that sounded like he had taken on a faux-British accent after hearing almost insultingly bad versions in cartoons. “T’was Joselyn Atherby what rescued my clan from the old caves, innit? Tweren’t for her, those wankers would’ve had a right straight shot at wiping us out.”

“Wankers?” I echoed. “You mean, um, other Heretics?”

Adjusting the monocle on his face (the Kobold had a freaking monocle, how great was that?), Fancy nodded once more. “Quite, quite! Our clan was in our little hovels when some sodding students from that old island of yours showed up. Apparently slaughtering our people was some bloody test or somefin. So they comes running in without so much as a howdo, but before they can commence the pig-sticking, the pretty blonde human shows up. She says a bunch of fine words, gives most of the clan time to escape. But I stayed behind, so I saw when she smacked around the ones what thought they could still fight anyway. She took a few of them on, ones what believed what she said. Then she asked if I wanted her to drop me anywhere. Well, I couldna think of any better place to be than right alongside the woman what just saved all our lives. So I stayed. Decided I wanted to be a better specimen, so’s I went and made meself from the dirt-scrabbling, poor little wretch I was before into the fine example you see before you.”

There were more stories like that, and I sat and listened to as many as I could until Gabriel finally interrupted to say that we should be getting back before it got to be any later. I agreed, but only reluctantly, and with the promise that I could come back later to hear more of their stories. And maybe even hear from other people, since this wasn’t nearly all of the ones at the camp. Apparently they didn’t want to overwhelm me, so they’d drawn lots to see who would talk to me first. Which… honestly, the idea that so many people wanted to talk to me about my mother that they had to draw lots for it was pretty intimidating.

One thing was even more apparent than it had already been. My mother had changed an awful lot of lives through her rebellion. She had inspired people, saved them, brought them on to do great things for decades even after she was out of the fight. They looked up to her, adored her, loved her. They missed her as much as I did.

Getting her back, saving her from Fossor, wasn’t just about me. It was about them. It was about all the people she had helped, all the people she had recruited, inspired, and led. It was about the people who had known her as a baby, who had known my grandfather, and his father.

Ruthers and Fossor probably thought that they didn’t have anything in common beyond being alive for a long time. But they did. They were alike in one very important, crucial way.

We were going to put both of them in the fucking ground for hurting my mom.

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